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 John Altoon  (1925 - 1969)

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Lived/Active: New York/California      Known for: mod figure, abstraction, illustration

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John Altoon
An example of work by John Altoon
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
With energetic abstract expression, an aggressive personality, and reckless life style, John Altoon was a major presence in the 1950 and 60s art scene of Los Angeles that included Robert Irwin, Ed Kienholz and Ed Moses. Artistically he became known for his oil paintings and his influence as an art instructor.

In the magazine "Art in America," February 1999, he was referred to, relative to that era, as "the baddest of the bad boys" [84], one who rode motorcycles at high speeds, drove cars blindfolded, and also suffered from schizophrenia.

He grew up in Los Angeles and after high school graduation, served in the Navy as a radar technician in the Pacific during World War II. At the end of the war, he used the GI Bill to go to art school and lived and worked as a commercial illustrator in New York City. During this time, he also created large gestural paintings, as a result of his exposure to the New York School of Abstract Expressionists. Subsequently he spent a year in France and Spain before returning to his native Los Angeles in 1955..

His work is described as reductive in that he changed from an all over painted surfaces to floating shapes. In the 1960s, he began doing botanical and biomorphic forms, a theme that remained with him until his death. Some of the paint he applied with airbrush. He also did a series of pen and ink drawings called "Nightmares," that were expressions of erotic fantasies, and many watercolors that he exhibited with the California Water Color Society.

He died in Los Angeles. In 1997, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego had a retrospective of his work.

"Art in America", February 1999
Gordon McClelland and Jay Last, "California Watercolors, 1850-1970"

Biography from Art Cellar Exchange:

Paintings by John Altoon are as passionate and expressive as the artist himself.  As such, it is not surprising that Altoon closely aligned himself with the Abstract Expressionist of the early 1950s.   Altoon's paintings recall the bold work of DeKooning and Kline.  Although Altoon did associate with the New York avant-garde of the early 1950s, he earned more notoriety by facilitating the diffusion of unconventional thinking from the East to the West Coast.  As one of the first artists of the infamous Ferus Gallery, Altoon helped to generate new thinking in the Los Angeles art world.  This thinking certainly contributed to LA's current stronghold on the contemporary art scene.  "If the [Ferus] gallery was closest in spirit to a single person, that person was John Altoon - dearly loved, defiant, romantic, highly ambitious - and slightly mad." --Irving Blum, former co-owner of Ferus Gallery.

The Ferus Gallery "Studs," as they called themselves, became the nucleus of unorthodox art on the West Coast.  Other "Studs" included Ed Keinholtz, Robert Irwin, Ed Moses, Larry Bell and Ed Ruscha.  Although as a group they were known for their artistic edginess, it was Altoon's volatile personality that most often drew attention.  He was known for both his boisterous enthusiasm and as well as his bouts of depression and alcoholism. 

As with many artistic geniuses, this depth of emotion was a double-edged sword.  Although Altoon's works became rich with feeling and passion, this emotional depth took a toll on his psyche.  "The artistry and expressiveness of John Altoon's works, in both drawings and paintings reveals a passion and energy unlike that of any other artist working in California at that time?They are witty, dark, explosive, passionate, vibrant - all of the elements that made up the character of the artist himself.  Looking at this paintings and drawings, one wants to laugh and blush at the same time, as if caught in a moment of voyeurism peeking into the deepest inner reaches of Altoon's troubled soul," Silva Bezdikian.

Regrettably, like many of his peers, Altoon's life was cut tragically short.  Suffering a massive heart attack, he passed away at the age of 44, leaving the art world to wonder what may have been.  Despite its brevity, his career was certainly not without purpose.  His work helped bridge the gap between the East and West Coast artist's of the mid 20th century and set a precedent for the kind of visual thinking that has made Los Angeles one of the largest centers for new art in the world today.

The National Gallery of Art, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and The Norton Simon Museum own John Altoon's paintings. The San Diego Museum of Art held a retrospective exhibition in 1997.

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